MARCH 2019 NOTE: This was originally published on my old website in 2014; I’ve quickly updated, but it needs a much more fine-tuned update, which I’m planning to do in the next week or so!
In 2010, I made friends with my amazing local independent bookstore (WORD in Brooklyn). Our relationship had an unexpected beginning—you see, WORD didn’t carry romance. But the store had a fabulous manager who was willing to hear me out when I promised her that romance wasn’t just a genre she should carry, but a genre that was worth carrying. Indeed, with the lock on more than 60% of the paperback fiction market, and with readers who read (on average) 5-10 books a month, it would make them money!
I’ll tell you, at the start, she said the same thing I’ve heard from other indie booksellers: “Our customers don’t read romance,” but she listened when I said, “Perhaps they don’t buy it from you because you don’t carry it.” It’s the ultimate chicken/egg conundrum.
In 2011, WORD started their romance section with 12 books – less than one shelf in a tiny, 600-or-so sq ft space – a section curated by me. I suppose there might have been 15 books, actually, because they also carried the Love By Numbers series. In 2013, WORD moved more than 500 romance novels out of their store—books sold to walk-ins, through the WORDs of Love monthly online book club that we started together, online to Sarah MacLean readers (WORD also handles signed copies of all my books), and at myriad romance events (and through an in-store book club). 2014 is shaping up to look even better.
Last year, at the Southern Independent Booksellers Association annual conference, I told my WORD story and shared data on the success of bringing romance to WORD. The room was full of independent booksellers who were romance converts, and it was awesome to see.
That said, I know there are others out there – people who sold 1000 copies of 50 Shades of Grey, or you’re selling lots of The Wedding Date or The Kiss Quotient, but still think that your customers don’t read romance. This post is really for you, because I’ll tell you something – no person who read all three of the 50 Shades books stopped reading romance. They’re just buying it from somewhere else.
Here’s the thing: Romance readers don’t buy books “instead of.” They buy books “in addition to.” Shouldn’t those sales be yours? I mean, if you’re selling them Elizabeth Gilbert, why not Christina Lauren? If Colson Whitehead, why not Beverly Jenkins? If Hillary Mantel, why not Sherry Thomas? If Charlaine Harris, why not Kresley Cole?
I get it – Romance is a HUGE genre, and overwhelming in the extreme. With hundreds of books published each month, where do you begin? And how do you do it intelligently and without giving up miles of shelf space before remaindering a bunch of stock?
As you can imagine, I’ve got ideas. And I want to help.
Start Small (or, Quality Not Quantity)
It’s often said that while the rest of the book world is judged by its best, romance is often judged by its worst. Enough of that business. As I said, WORD started with one shelf of romance. And I’m guessing that your store is bigger than theirs (I promise. It’s bigger.). You can surely spare one shelf, right? You can put it next to mystery and scifi (our genre brethren), or you can do what WORD did and put it right up front in Fiction, as if to say, “We know you’re buying this stuff from *cough*-azon. We don’t judge you. Buy it from us instead.”
BUT WHERE DO YOU START?
It's hard. I get that. There are literally tens of thousands of romances published every year, and if you don't know much about romance, it's utterly overwhelming. I put together this list of more than 180 romances I love, and I'm happy to say it's served as a starter kit for several new indie-bookstore romance sections. I think these are great books that provide excellent representation for the genre. Some you’ve heard of. Some you haven’t. Some you’ll love. Some you won’t. And your patrons will guide your hand on this pretty quickly.
There are a bunch of other sources for romance recommendations: The professional organization Romance Writers of America gives the RITA award annually to celebrate the best in romance; there are romance reviews in Library Journal, Booklist & Publishers Weekly and at NPR, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times and the Seattle Review of Books. I have a regular romance column in the Washington Post. BookRiot has a wonderful, eclectic coverage of romance, Frolic is an exclusively romance website, and the site All About Romance does an annual reader poll of the top 100 romances of all time, which an interesting overview of the last 40 years of the genre.
Find the Romance Lovers in Your Midst
Is it someone on your staff? Is it a customer? Is it a local romance writer? Someone you know reads romance, and romance readers are voracious. These readers are tremendous ambassadors, but they’re more than that – they’re a resource. They can tell you what’s out there, what’s good, what you should be stocking. What’s coming down the pike that they can’t wait for. Lean on them to curate your tiny starter-section. Encourage them to write shelf tags. Romance readers have long, impressive memories for stories, and they really really want to talk about the books they love.
Don’t Forget Your Reps
A lot of the publishing houses don’t even pitch Indies romances because you’ve traditionally not been interested in carrying the genre. You want to know what the big books in romance will be over the next year? Ask your reps! They’ll probably jaw drop when you do, and some might have to get you answers, but they’ll absolutely be able to help.
Events – or, Creating a Safe Space Your Romance Community
You can do this in a million ways, but events help—and I’m not talking about readings. I’m talking about discussions demystifying romance, panels that respect romance readers, conversations that show an understanding of (or at least an interest in) the depth and breadth of the genre.
Talk to your publishing reps about which romance authors are in town or nearby (there are thousands of us…you definitely have one or two in your back yard).
Offer Preorders – Signed Preorders, too!
Romance readers preorder books. Lots of them. They do it because they have so many auto-buy authors, that it’s easier to preorder than to remember the exact date they arrive.
And if you have a local romance author, why not offer to handle her signed preorders for new releases? WORD handles my signed books for new releases – we include a free giftie in the package to help ease the pain of those big shipping fees – and we sell hundreds of books with each new release.
Tailor the Section to the Store
WORD started with that tiny shelf, which soon grew into a small section (Romance is 2% of the store’s total inventory). But they realized that they could sell more of it if they shelved it in with Fiction. They find that shoppers are more willing to find it and buy it if Sarah MacLean is next to Hilary Mantle because—and this bit is interesting—customers aren’t buying romance instead. They’re buying romance in addition to. Which is pretty good for everyone, don’t you think?
Try It Yourself
You’ve never read a romance novel. Or, you read one a million years ago when you found it on your grandmother’s nightstand. It’s time for you to try again, friend. And I want to help you with that. If you don’t know where to begin (though, again, I encourage you to try one of the above list), comment below and tell me what you like to read. Give me the names of a few of the books or authors you like. I bet I can find a romance novel that you’ll enjoy (or at least won't hate). Don’t want to comment? Prefer a faster response? Tweet me @sarahmaclean #romancerecs.
And finally …
If you need more guidance, we can chat about tailoring a new section to your community, and I’m always available for recommendations and shelf talkers (for free!). I’ve spent time talking to booksellers all over the country about how to do this right, filling out sections and keeping them current. Send me an email and we can talk about yours.
I look forward to making you a kissing book convert.